“Drive” works not only as an entertaining action film with lots of style but also as a compelling character study with a fascinatingly enigmatic character surrounded by an array of the interesting characters. While the action sequences in the movie are impressive enough to talk about after watching it, the characters occupies the equal position as the strong element to hold our attention to their story. We are excited by the actions, and we are also fascinated by the characters.
The hero of the movie played by Ryan Gosling is the quintessential case of existential hero, the term which can be simply defined by “I do, so I exist.” He has no name: he is just named “Driver” in the end credit, and that can say everything we need to know about him. His lonely life is occupied by his cool, dispassionate professionalism. Legally, he works as a stunt car driver at the movie set while also working at the garage owned by Shannon(Bryan Cranston). Illegally, he moonlights as a wheelman working for criminals.
In the opening scene, Driver has just been hired by some criminals. He is a model employee; he is strict, careful, resourceful and efficient. He never asks about their job. With a car from Shannon’s garage prepared for him, he waits for his employers for limited time as he demanded to them, while monitoring the police radio communication. When the police start to chase after them, he evades their pursuit with cool calculation and meticulous timing; it is sort of refreshing to see the sequence where the car action is not just all about driving tough and fast with lots of noises.
He lives alone in some apartment building. There is not any person close to him. Even Shannon later says that he knows almost nothing about Driver, who suddenly appeared to him several years ago and has not talked much about him. Recently, Shannon wants to put him into the car race, but he needs some money for the car, so he makes a choice which is probably unwise; he comes to be associated with the criminals, Bernie(Albert Brooks) and Nino(Ron Perlman), who have some shady history with Shannon.
Meanwhile, Driver initiates a friendly relationship with one of his neighbours, Irene(Cary Mulligan). Her car is broken on one day when they come across with each other. He naturally helps her, and they become a little closer than before. Irene lives with her young son Benicio(Kaden Leos), and it is possible that he can be a father figure to this young boy, though their relationship is more like a boy and his kind, friendly artificial intelligence babysitter.
While there is indeed an unspoken feeling between Irene and Driver, their situation gets complicated when Irene’s husband Standard(Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. Surprisingly, though I guess he senses what has been going on between his wife and her neighbour, he is gentle to Driver. Standard cares about his family and wants to make a new start, but soon he is forced to do something criminal to be free from his criminal life. Driver, who cares about Irene’s happiness, finds himself getting involved in Standard’s job, which turns out to be far more perilous than Driver thought at first.
The director Nicholas Winding Refn, who previously made “Bronson”(2009), imbues his film with the dry, bleak atmosphere reminiscent of those lean, taut Hollywood action movies made during the 1980s(I don’t know whether it is intentional or not, Albert Brooks has an amusing line about them in the movie). The cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel makes impressive use of lights and shadows to give noirish feel to the film, and Cliff Martinez’s atmospheric electronic score, which may be not very enjoyable on CD, enhances the retro style of the movie along with the several songs from the 1980s.
There are excellent action sequences in the film, and the best thing about them is, like the ones in “Bullitt”(1968) or “To Live and Die in LA”(1985), they look real while it is quite thrilling. Unlike those bland CGI actions with which we are frequently served every summer in these days, we see the cars are really running fast or crashing with each other on the screen. The movie also values the importance of suspense before it pedals to pump up adrenaline into the screen; sometimes it is more entertaining to wait while trying to guess what will happen with the ticking sound of a wristwatch and the hero’s intense concentration.
As a taciturn hero who follows the footsteps of his equally quiet seniors including Alain Delon in “Le Samourai”(1967), Ryan Gosling, one of the most talented young actors working in Hollywood, does a terrific job as a lonely man who does not reveal much about himself to others. He does not say anything except when it is necessary, but Gosling creates a believable human character with small gestures and faint facial expressions. We do not know exactly about his thoughts and feelings, but we always sense the presence of the mind working behind the seemingly nice but coldly detached face of his.
Gosling’s character is surrounded by the colorful supporting characters who are far more opened than him. Carey Mulligan may be too elegant to live in the unglamorous side of LA, but the quiet chemistry between her and Gosling is palpable even though they do not often touch each other. Bryan Cranston plays a guy whom you can depend on when you do something illegal. He is a nice man but he is tactless – and he inhabits in a ruthless world, which is represented by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Perlman is vain as a guy who thinks himself as a figure bigger than what he actually is, and Brooks gives a quiet but memorable performance as a man who does not like dirty works but knows he has to clean the messy situation with no loose ends, absolutely. Considering many of Brooks’ comic performances, this is a successful case of cast against the type.
The screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on James Sallis’ novel, is not entirely perfect due to the third act relatively weak compared to the rest of the movie. That does not matter much, because, above all, the characters are interesting to observe; it does a very nice job of presenting them to us as someone more than stereotypes we usually expect from its genre. I believed their world, and I was absorbed in their story while thrilled by the well-executed actions. “Drive” is a product as slick, precise, and intelligent as it can be or you desire to be – and it does drive well.